It’s one thing to ask what an author intends to say, just as important is to understand what a reader, or in the very act of which it is written, a participant in the story actually hears. Christ calls John the Baptist the greatest man ever to live, primarily because he is, in one sense, continuing to function in a prophetically shadowy sense (Matt. 11:13), while fleshing out what Peter claims is the desire for all those who prophesied of Jesus to see him make substance of it (1 Peter 1:10-12). John’s message was as prophetically implicit as any other that had walked in his shoes before him. Turn from your idolatry to the one true God, or else judgement. In a direct interaction with the Pharisee and Sadducee wherein he asks them to give an answer to who warned them to flee the wrath that was coming, he goes on to explain that there is one coming after him that will baptize them with fire. The begging questions is what did the Pharisees and Sadducee hear when John said that?
“No doubt the Jewish leaders in the 1st century had an Old Testament frame-work to understanding a baptismal fire, and it as wrathful.”
Fire wasn’t a cleansing agent in the Old Testament as much as it was a wrathful agent (Gen 3:24, Num. 11:1-3, Joshua 6:24, 7:15, Is. 1:7). These examples merely scratch a surface that extends throughout the Old Testament. The emerging reality is a 1st century understanding that would most certainly have understood John’s words of a fiery baptism being the pouring out of the wrath of God (Lam. 2:4). I don’t think, given the political climate in 1st century Palestine that we go too far wondering if they would have even connected this wrath geopolitical, via their current occupants as the Roman Empire. The fully aware Old Testament understanding could hardly escape these two connections, the Assyrians brought fire onto the Northern Kingdoms and the Babylonian’s brought fire onto the Southern Kingdoms. Could John be saying the same of the current occupiers?
“We do damage to a dualistic idea when we connect what scripture does not, as one and the same.”
When John speaks baptistically of the Holy Spirit and of Fire (Matt. 3:11, Luke 3:16), does he mean to say the same thing? The better question is to ask if his hearers have a frame-work to even hear it in similar terms. I’m not sure they do. There’s an apparent division in the Old Testament that speaks of the baptismal outpouring of the Spirit on the righteous (Isa. 44:3, Ezek. 39:29, and Joel 2:28), similarly decreed upon the wicked is fire (Isa. 26:11, Isa. 65:15, Isa. 66:24, Jer. 4:4, ad Jer. 15:14). While these may be delivered simultaneously by the same agent, there is an apparent distinction between the two.
“Having just spoken to the pharisee of wrath, John further illustrates this by connecting it with an immersion of fire for these idolatrously disobedient serpents.”
Those in the New Covenant age that reject Christ for their own idolatry will experience the punishment that the Old Covenant people of God finally did by their being cast into outer darkness as God’s covenant people by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and his subsequent fiery wrathful Roman judgement being forever separated from their creator and cast out and into the flames of God’s wrath. An unquenchable flame of wrath that needs the rejected Christ to quench, but alas, He has been rejected.